Reflections after Portland's civil rights trip to the South
PHOTO: Portlanders participating in a civil rights trip to the South march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge as part of their journey toward a more just society. The bridge, now a National Historic Landmark, was the site of the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings of civil rights marchers during the first march for voting rights in 1965. Photo by Jenn Director Knudsen.
BY JENN DIRECTOR KNUDSEN
On the bus from Atlanta to Montgomery, Ala., tour guide Billy Planer told his 39 charges from Portland to check their watches.
The native Atlantan said, “As we say in Georgia, when you cross the state line into Alabama, you go back one hour and a few decades.”
The bus pulled to a stop in Montgomery on April 25, also known only in Alabama as Confederate Memorial Day. State government offices close for business and people lay Confederate flags at the gravesites of soldiers who fell fighting the Union during the Civil War, which ended in 1865.
A few decades indeed.
The Portlanders, ages 8 to 80, embarked on the civil rights trip in late April, which was jointly organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s Jewish Community Relations Council and Vancouver First Avenue Baptist Church.
At one of the trip’s key stops, in Selma, Ala., the Portland civil rights participants walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In 1965, it was where African Americans and their allies began their 53-mile march to Montgomery to fight for Blacks’ right to vote. Armed law enforcement met those marchers on the other side, brutalizing them.
The next day marked the conclusion of the JCRC-Vancouver Avenue civil rights trip. Now that it’s over, how will Portland participants continue the proverbial march?
“What I plan to do now is to ‘Give a damn,’ and get involved,” says Eliana Temkin, referencing the slogan on a pin Planer gave every Portlander on the trip’s last day.
“A small group of us from this trip are meeting in June to think about where we can put our energy,” for example, toward prison reform or reversing today’s voter-suppression laws, says Temkin, 59, a Federation board member and a Kaiser Permanente consultant.
Shawn Flynn, 49, is helping elect Captain Derrick Peterson, a Black man, as Multnomah County Sheriff. “You will see he is the only (local) candidate publicly talking about criminal-justice reform,” Flynn says.
“I recall all the billboards of candidates running for sheriff as we drove through Alabama, and it clicked,” he says. He adds he could see “how controlling that position is in the South and how important it is to have representation from the Black and brown communities if we are going to make inroads in changing the system.”
Taylor Stewart, 26, is responsible for publicizing the name – and memory – of Oregon’s first known victim of lynching, and he is wrapping up prep work for a TED Talk on a related topic on May 28 at the Moda Center.
“My biggest post-trip plan that I hadn’t been pursuing beforehand is hosting my own civil rights tour to Atlanta, Alabama and Mississippi,” says Stewart, who is Black. This was his second civil rights trip (this one with father, Trent Stewart, in tow).
“I want trip participants when they’re going through and after the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, for example, to ask themselves ‘Why?’” he says. “Yes, slavery evolved, but why did it evolve? Why did slavery become lynching, why did it become segregation, why did it become mass incarceration?”
Taylor’s story of researching Oregon’s only named lynching victim, Alonzo Tucker of Coos Bay, inspired some on the trip to join in the search for others.
“There are other Oregon lynchings that need our attention,” said Leslie Warren, 50, a financial advisor. “There are at least three others who need our help, and I’m happy to start a research group if anyone is interested,” she informed the group in an email.
Randie Friend Peterson raised her proverbial hand. “I just volunteered to be on the team conducting research,” responded Peterson, a grandmother and Congregation Beth Israel member.
Active for years in civil rights and social-justice work, Peterson says she will continue the work she’s been involved in for years, such as get-out-the vote efforts in Georgia and Texas, meeting and talking with people of all races and casting her ballot for political candidates who enhance opportunities for the socially and economically disenfranchised.
“I will continue to listen,” she adds. “I am still processing the words said by one of the Black members of Vancouver Avenue when she informed me (on the trip) that I could not understand the meaning of the places we visited and the people we met in the same way she understood them.”
Danaya Hall, 47, who is Black, the granddaughter of a sharecropper and Jewish, says, “I will do what I have been doing since 2019, which is to continue to steward the Alliance of Black Nurses Association of Oregon as the founding president.”
Danaya continues, “The rich experience of our trip has embedded within me a visceral comprehension of the civil rights movement that I look forward to sharing with my community of nurses, students and family.”
Back in Selma, before the group retraced the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they met and spoke with Joanne Bland, 70, a civil rights activist who was jailed as young as 8 and beaten and bloodied at age 11 by hateful white law enforcement officials.
The group followed behind her as she walked to a site close to where she grew up, in the George Washington Carver Homes, and pointed at a diminutive, dilapidated play structure between nondescript brick buildings. “Five hundred children live here,” Joanne said.
She is part of a small, grassroots effort to raise money to create the kind of playground 500 kids should have. Doug Blauer, 53, a longtime JCRC member, was moved to start a fundraising effort once home, and Peterson says she, too, would jump aboard. Others likely will follow.
As Bland told Portland’s Black and Jewish trip participants: “You are the dream.”